The consciousness of crows

Last week, Science Magazine published an interesting study on bird consciousness: A neural correlate of sensory consciousness in a corvid bird.  The study conducted an experiment where crows were trained to respond to a sensory stimulus.  The stimulus itself could be at the threshold of perceptibility, above that threshold, or missing.  After the stimulus (or non-stimulus), there was a delay then a response prompt, where the crows had to respond in a certain way depending on the combination of whether they saw the stimulus and what type of prompt they received.

The neural activity of the crows in a region of their pallium analogous to the human prefrontal cortex was monitored while they were performing this task.  The task itself seems to confirm that the crows have cognitive access to working memory and a high degree of intelligence.  The team was able to track the neural activity reliably enough that they could predict when the crow would respond.  From this data, the study authors claim to have isolated at least some of the neural correlates of corvid consciousness.

Unfortunately, this is not the most clearly written paper, so the logic doesn’t seem very clear, at least not to me.  Crow intelligence is actually well established, yet this paper is getting a lot of attention.  As far as I can tell, the reason is that it chose to characterize its results as demonstrating something about corvid consciousness.  This has led to a lot of breathless press reports that it demonstrated crows are conscious “for the first time”.  (The linked news article, from a science news site that is normally somewhat reliable, is a mess of inaccuracies about animal consciousness research.)

Among animal researchers, bird consciousness is not a controversial notion.  The study I highlighted the other day on dimensions of animal consciousness included corvids as one of its chief examples.  Which is why I didn’t get that excited about this study.  But with all the attention, some neuroscientists are starting to actually push back against it.  And I’ve seen a few people on social media opine that the study “moved the goalpost” so they could make their claim.

Now, I happen to think that intelligence and working memory are important aspects of consciousness, so I personally don’t have an issue with making conclusions about crow consciousness from this kind of evidence, or for that matter, from the evidence of previous studies.

But it’s interesting that most of this type of research doesn’t label itself as research into consciousness, but into things like visual discrimination, cognition, memory, and intelligence.  Most of that research doesn’t get a lot of attention, because it’s missing the c-word, even though much of it can be seen as pertaining to consciousness.  This is work on what Chalmers calls the “easy” problems, that is, problems that are tractable to scientific inquiry.  Since I think the “hard” problem is basically the easy problems combined, work on those easy problems arguably is work on consciousness.

So does this study demonstrate crow consciousness?  In my mind, not any more than previous work did.  Crows definitely seem to have primary or sensory consciousness.  And some of the previous work demonstrated that they have deliberative imagination.  So unless you’re holding out for theory of mind self awareness, it already made a lot of sense to let them in club consciousness.

The study does seem to provide some information on how corvid brains work related to conscious activity, and is interesting in that regard.  But it seems overhyped in its claims.  On the other hand, skepticism about crow consciousness also seems misplaced.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

22 thoughts on “The consciousness of crows

  1. I guess what I got from skimming thru that link is that this is the first time that they could characterize crows as having the ability to report. Maybe that was known already, but if so, I was unaware.

    While we frequently discuss the range of capabilities which various people require as necessary for consciousness, I think there are very few who require more than the ability to report. Report is pretty much the gold standard for how we know if/when other people are conscious.

    Now what kind of experiment could you do to get a crow to report about it’s “self”?

    *

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    1. I have to admit I’m not sure what the status was on reports in crows, or birds overall. I think I remember reading something about it before, but I might be conflating it with other species.

      Definitely self report in humans is the gold standard. But when a human accurately reports something because they’ve been asked to do so when they’re aware of it, we know they’re conscious of it. Report in animals always involves a degree of judgment and interpretation, that they’re doing something more than operantly following a procedure to get a reward. We really can only say it with any confidence if it involves a task similar to one we’ve already established as reportable in humans.

      In this study, I think what does it is the delay between stimulus and response, coupled with the adjustment made on the later prompt stimulus. This requires keeping the stimulus in mind and using that knowledge in a volitional manner. From what I’ve read, when humans do something like that, it’s reportable.

      Getting at the mental self in experiments is tough. It involves testing metacognition. There have been lots of claims of having demonstrated metacognition in numerous species (rats, dolphins, dogs, etc), but in most cases the evidence is subject to simpler explanations. As far as I know, it’s only been shown robustly in other primates, so far.

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  2. Sounds like it’s valid in its conclusions, but, as you say, it’s not exactly headline news at this point. Maybe it moved the needle a bit in some way. [shrug]

    I keep trying to make friends with the crows in my neighborhood, but so far they just stare at me.

    Liked by 4 people

          1. True, I just know how much they like (high-energy) meat, and its strong scent would attract them. I suppose I could bring nuts or cheese, but I’m pretty well in touch with my inner carnivore. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I don’t know they are driven as much by scent. They may be. But they can spot the dry cat food on the ground or on a paper plate. Once they try it, they’ll be back regularly. Some eat off the paper plate but others like to flip the food off the plate. I don’t know whether they perceive the plate as a risk or whether they think flipping it to the ground will make it less visible to other animals.

            Try to feed in the same location daily. Ideally it would have trees or something nearby where they can perch to survey the feeding area for danger before coming down for the food. Also, ideal would be no brush or bushes too close that could conceal predators, although they would probably flush them out anyway if there are any.

            They seem more interested early morning but I’ve seen them frequently at other times too.

            You could wait until you spot some nearby then take the food out. That will diminish the chance that squirrels or something else will get it before the crows. Then go back inside. Don’t stay anywhere near the food or they wouldn’t risk it.

            If you establish a pattern, they will likely start to show up most days no long after the food is put out.

            Sometimes one crow will spot it and call others. Most of the crows that you see eating together are probably related. Father, mother, children. Maybe brothers or sisters.

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          1. I’ve heard that feeding bread to birds isn’t good for them, although that might not apply to dry pet food. I guess I’d want to feed them something more natural to their environment. (Hence the worms. 😀 )

            All your cautions are familiar, and the thing that strikes me is these treat them like wild animals rather than intelligent creatures. The same thing strikes me in most books by animal researchers — how much they treat animals,… as animals.

            Which is fine and all. I’m just trying to see if I can connect with them more intellectually. I speak to the crows on my morning walks, and I’ve gotten a sense some of them are letting me get a bit closer before they fly away.

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  3. I actually had the chance to read that paper two days ago and I believe that it only accounts for what Block considers A-consciousness (access consciousness). This has, honestly, nothing to do with P-consciousness (phenomenal consciousness). And, even if being able to say anything about P-consciousness means solving all the “easy” puzzles posed by Chalmers for cognitive neuroscientists, there is a long road before we get there. The article didn’t really convince me. Obviously birds can process information in their brains and crows have been proven to be intelligent already. This feels like yellow journalism to me.

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    1. Definitely it’s in terms of access consciousness. If we don’t take evidence of access as evidence of phenomenality, then establishing phenomenal consciousness is very difficult. (Hence Chalmers’ hard problem.) I think the paper explicitly mentions the debate on this. Whether there can be access consciousness without phenomenality depends on how you feel about philosophical zombies.

      But I do agree, the paper oversells what it establishes, and the media has magnified it. It’s unfortunate, because the study itself actually is interesting for what it does demonstrate.

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  4. I feel this sort of science is just plain silly. Of course crows are conscious. The onus is on scientists to prove otherwise, and they never will. Modern consciousness studies is is an embarrassment to science. It is not possible to prove any animal is conscious, even human beings. It’s an interpretation and an inference.

    I imagine the main item on the agenda is to make sure there’s no suggestion that Buddha and Lao us knew anything about the topic.I find it all rather pathetic and nothing at all like honest science. . .

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    1. I have to admit I often wonder if it’s productive for science to try to explore consciousness. The concept seems just too amorphous and hazy. Meaning that a lot of it is figuring out what we mean when we use the word “conscious”, which seems like a philosophical problem. I think science can inform that debate by exploring capabilities and mechanisms, but it seems difficult for it to complete it.

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  5. Of course, I’m completely in agreement so I don’t think you are fundamentally missing anything.

    I think the reporting aspect as well as the correlation with brain activity are the important aspects of the study, while the consciousness aspect is more secondary and more or less previously demonstrated to the extent it can be.

    Regarding the correlation with brain activity, I would like to add something that I tried to call out, maybe not very successfully, in a post a few months ago.

    https://broadspeculations.com/2020/08/04/brain-as-emulator/

    When we detect a spike of neurons firing associated with some cognitive act, I am not totally convinced this is evidence of consciousness per se. What was the state of the crows before they saw the stimulus? Sure they were not unconscious. The spike of neurons firing must not really be an indicator of consciousness but rather an indicator the admission of a significant amount of new information into an already existing conscious state.

    Consciousness seems to have something of a dual aspect. One aspect seem to involve a relatively low energy process that is self-sustaining and admits low amounts of mostly expected and routine information. The second aspect involves spikes that are high energy and represent the admission of non-routine information. The correlation of brain activity in this study seems to represent just this second aspect.

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    1. That’s a good point. Most of the activity in the brain is endongenous, that is, internally generated. Which makes sense if you think about it. It’s not like our minds shutdown when we’re not getting stimuli. (Of course, we’re always getting at least some stimuli, interoceptive if nothing else, but still.)

      When we see discussions about brain activity related to stimuli, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about changes from the baseline. Even when we do receive a stimulus, most of the resulting processing is still endogenous in origin, being mostly predictions, expectations about what we’re perceiving, with the incoming signal serving as error correction. That seems particularly true when the crow has to hold the percept in mind for a bit before responding.

      It seems like an important point of state consciousness is maintaining a certain state of arousal and alertness, and that requires some baseline of activity be maintained. I’ve seen some speculation that this level of alertness is linked to a warm blooded homeothermic metabolism (like the kind mammals and birds have). Although Feinberg and Mallatt said there was enough uncertainty in the dates that the link is tenuous.

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  6. Sounds like overhyped research to me. I’ve been hearing a lot about crow intelligence for years now. They’re social animals, they’re good problem solvers, and they’ve been observed using twigs and other small objects as tools. They’re among the most intelligent animals on the planet, but that doesn’t mean they’re anywhere near human-like intelligence or human-like consciousness.

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    1. The paper doesn’t really claim human level consciousness for the crows. But a lot of the news media hasn’t been nearly as restrained. So the initial overhyping by the authors has been magnified by the press. (See Popular Mechanics for a particularly egregious headline.)

      So yeah, definitely overhyped.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hmmm: “…but that doesn’t team they’re anywhere near human-like intelligence or human-like consciousness.” Of course we’ll all agree with that. What has always interested me, and this is not very scientific, is whether consciousness and intelligence in humans is different in kind from other smart animals, like religion would have us believe, or if it is simply a difference in degree? Reading about crows, dolphins, and even surprisingly octopuses, has me voting for the latter.

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    1. I think it’s a mix. Much of it, perhaps most, is a matter of degree. It’s worth noting that many animals have types of capabilities we lack or have in some severely curtailed manner, such as smell.

      But something that stands out for humans is language, and symbolic thought overall. The evidence for that in other animals is scant, at least without pretty liberal interpretations of “symbolic thought”. And the deep recursive metacognitive framework on which symbolic thought is built appears to be unique to humans, at least so far.

      I do think we have to be cautious, since just about every attribute we’ve taken to be unique to ourselves has eventually turned out to be more that matter of degree than sharp distinction.

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